Rambling On

Growing up on the outskirts of a tiny Irish village – which itself was outside of a town and far away from any city or urban centre – meant I spent my early years in a homogenous community, rarely if ever confronted by questions of ethnic, religious or national identity. Now that I’ve left, I walk through a metaphorical minefield, attempting to uncover what it means to come from where I have, questions of home set out before me like tripwires: “Where are you from?” Easy. Got it! Ireland. “So, do you speak Irish, then?” I guess. My balance begins to falter. Voice very much wavering with hesitant panic, waiting for what is to come. “Say something! It’s such a nice language!!!” C-c-conas … atá t-tú? My throat closes up and my brain goes blank. Before long, cultural pride becomes private shame and my degree in Arabic and French seems like treachery, a cardinal sin committed against a tongue whose influence seems to fade daily, like a questioning of intention, of loyalty, of personhood.

I’m not great at Irish but it’s not that deep, right? Well, centuries of foreign occupation, settlement, colonisation, imperialism and outright discrimination on all fronts – linguistic, religious, ethnic; I could go on – have constructed a system wherein a language means more than just its words. Its grammar, its syntax, its dialects become symbols of survival, of the complexity of Irish identity, of the independence of a nation. I wish it wasn’t so; that a language could be spoken innocently by small children in playgrounds as they taunt each other during a harmless game of tag, without native speakers being labelled by one ex-politician and well-known radio presenter as “cultural terrorists”. There is something to be said for the impact of physical movement on the Irish (and other) language(s). For instance, Gaeilgeoir communities in the south of Ireland uniquely emphasise the last syllable of words, a result of French invasion in the 12th century and the subsequent mixing of stress patterns. Elsewhere, the American expression “You dig” developed because Irish immigrants, monoglots of Gaeilge, frequently used the expression “An dtuigeann tú” (pronounced: On Digg-An Too), meaning “Do you understand?” when they interacted within their new communities.

On the question of Irish language and the issue of my personal identification, I try my best to keep up with Irish language every day, and to interact with the amazing online community promoting the beauty that is Gaeilge to timelines, newsfeeds, and dashboards across the world. By involving myself in debate, discussion, and conversations regarding the Irish language, I feel more and more affinity with the identity of an ‘Irish speaker’, or gaeilgeoir, but usually prefer, nua-chainteoir, meaning “new speaker”, or someone who learned their Irish as a ‘foreign’ language. Yet, there is something missing. The daily use of language in a casual setting. The way I long to call up my parents and start off with “Haigh! Cén chaoi a bhfuil sibh?” and not any English equivalent. I’m finding that as days pass, my identity is not just that of a budding Irish speaker but of someone intent on reversing the dominance of the English language, the final form of British imperialism. With their movement around the world, invading 171 of 193 current member states of the United Nations, the British Empire pushed English on the world like a disease. It was them, not us, who were cultural terrorists, imposing foreign languages onto peoples native tongues, to interrupt rebellion, ease their rule over locals, and in keeping with the French, all for a certain “mission civilisatrice”.

I’m not alone in feeling this, far from it. The movement for improving the status of the Irish language in Ireland and across the globe is as a diverse as it is determined, with campaigns like pop-up Gaeltacht sessions, drama, art, music, etc. One such campaign is REIC, a multilingual spoken word initiative organised by Ciara Ní É (@MiseCiara), who graciously offered her time to tell me more about the project. While the events help to support efforts to get people speaking Gaeilge, she told me, they also challenge people’s perceptions of what the language is and what it can be used for, tackling ideas that see Gaeilge as traditional or archaic. For me, one of the most important things that Ciara mentions is the post-colonial mindset of our very own Irish government, who fails to see its own language as worthy of respect and legitimacy.

Everything begins and ends with language. One cannot argue that point without employing words, speech, signs, codes, patterns, conjugations and so on. These ramblings are not meant to be an end point for linguistic identity discussions, but rather part of a larger process of questioning and redefining ideas, of coming to terms with what our words mean beyond meaning. Engaging with the first official language of my country, Éire, is not just a campaign on my part to be able to impress people at parties (but I don’t know if it would, either way) but it is a project that seeks to respect where I have come from, to support Gaeilge as a modern tongue and to finally figure out mo fhéinaitheantas.

*Illustration by Hazel Laing*

Eating disorders and health: Fitness generation and the worst times of the year.

CW: This article includes discussion of eating disorders and mental illness.

This article is not about my eating disorder story, nor is it about how it destroyed my health and still continues to do so. It’s not even an attack on those types of articles or narratives around anorexia, bulimia, BED, or all of the other evils that exist. It’s actually about our obsession with health and fitness, and how every time someone talks about the gym, their meal plans, or the run they missed this morning, I feel a little bit worse; why this culture of health is so harmful for people in recovery.

The first day of January: a fresh start, a chance to improve, an opportunity to thrive. Everyone plans out some arbitrary list of resolutions, usually rooted in self-hatred and insecurity: “lose that weight”, “start running 5k every day”, “no processed foods”, etc. They buy their new running shoes, fancy water bottles and get a membership for the nearest gym, all in the name of becoming themselves but version 2.0: fitter, healthier, happier. For me, it marks the start of perhaps the worst month of the entire year. Dark and cold, the season of sharp restriction begins with a multi-flanked assault: the same annual tradition of 6am runs, a health-destroying sub-1000 calorie meal plan (or should I say an ana-approved restrictive fast?), and the odd detox fad for good measure. It’s unavoidable, with everyone around talking about their plans for getting “back on track”, heading to the gym every morning and evening, starting one-meal-a-day diets, and worrying over the calories in a breath of fresh air. As someone who has been trying to silence the negative voice in my head for quite a while now, I cannot articulate how difficult it is to have that voice come out of everyone else’s mouth – friends, family, acquaintances. Trying to be my own kind of healthy, and put my recovery first, becomes harder and harder, until you break and join them.

Honestly, if you love your runs and your kale and quinoa salads and your ceremonial morning weigh-ins, I’m not here to stop you. But by telling the whole world, even those who don’t want to know, it can become easy to forget that this is not just a diet plan or a fitness regime, but a past life for some of us – something we have been trying to forget. When someone mentions in passing the calories in their food, my mind becomes the calculator I’ve been working on breaking into little pieces. It rebuilds itself and starts working out the numbers: an apple, 92, black coffee, 2. Whatever. It’s fine to have an interest in your health and to want to know what’s in your food, but when you promote that behaviour by acting as a mouthpiece, regardless of who’s around, you are contributing to the systematic neglect of eating disorder patients in long-term recovery. We can all celebrate the victims of this illness who worked their way out of the hole, but we have to realise that the hole is only one step backwards, only one week off track, only a handful of comments away. Every story needs to carry a warning: this recovery could be reversed; this period could just be an upswing; this person will forever be working on fighting their disposition to their past illness.

By normalising the doctrine of restriction, we simultaneously increase the likelihood of those around us suffering from an eating disorder in the future, while also preventing those already affected from successfully recovering and carrying on with their lives. Only in the past few weeks have I fully come back into myself and felt any semblance of normalcy for my mental health. That shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t allow people in recovery to spend months in the dark and then praise their heroism for keeping going despite it all. We should introduce real change that means that I don’t have to hold a grudge against January anymore. We need to stop talking about the gym, about our unrealistic fitness plans, about our weight, all from an unforgiving angle of restriction, necessity or self-hatred, because we don’t always know who’s in the room, or what power we’re giving to the voices in their heads.

*Illustrated by Josie Berry*

Bolsonaro: cut from the same cloth

In the wake of the most controversial elections in recent Brazilian history, Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Trump of the Tropics”, has called into question the legitimacy of modern democracy in Brazil and elsewhere. Nearly a hundred years have passed since the establishment of Mussolini’s Fascio di Combattimento, with this year also marking the centenary of Hitler’s entry into the Nazi party. Therefore, the gravity of this presidential choice cannot be avoided, and moreover, it must be confronted if we are to prevent a repetition of the shameful appeasement policy which rendered Britain and France complicit in the slaughter of millions of “undesirables”, caught in the sweeping wave of European fascism. Recognising the cyclic quality of this form of nationalist, xenophobic, and frankly brutal ideology is key to thwarting its destructive plans. If one acknowledges the striking similarities between the present leadership and regimes gone by, it becomes possible to link them, and then to pre-empt every move, winning the game before it has even truly begun.

Less than a month after Bolsonaro was sworn in, the openly-gay politician Jean Wyllys announced that he was leaving Brazil in order to seek refuge from the abuse and death threats that have become all too common in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s hateful electoral campaign. This policy of homophobia and state-sanctioned discrimination harks back to the time of a ‘gay island’ in Italy for homosexual prisoners, or the infamous pink triangles of Dachau, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps. Enough.

In his domestic policy, Bolsonaro’s ideas serve only to revive the painful authoritarian rule of many a militant dictator. One chilling quote from 2008 presents his threatening character most astutely: “The only mistake of the dictatorship (1964-85) was torturing and not killing.” These words sing the same deadly song as Hitler’s anti-Semitic call to arms, “We are going to destroy the Jews,” or the racial attacks against Mexican immigrants found in Trump’s nauseating speeches: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Enough.

While political analysts have barely toyed with the idea that Bolsonaro is a fascist leader, capable of legitimising public violence and of killing his own citizens, it is imperative that we move quickly to change the current dialogue. We need to act in order to stay ahead of Bolsonaro and his hard-handed politics. The current situation in Brazil is dangerous, with the homicide rate increasing by 3% last year, and twice as much for female victims. Additionally, the rate of sexual assaults climbed another 8% - this figure is a testament to the toxic climate of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have already made their position clear: “His election as Brazil’s president could pose a huge risk to Indigenous Peoples and quilombolas (descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves), traditional rural communities, LGBTI people, black youth, women, activists and civil society organizations.” The recycling of outdated and murderous ethnocentric political discourse in Brazil is not a tragedy; it is a preventable regeneration of what we have already seen, what we have already fought, and what we have already defeated. Enough.

*Illustration by Isi Williams*

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